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Abused donkeys lose sanctuary in debt fight: Jonathan Foster reports on a charitable venture and its colourful founder at the centre of legal wrangles and an official investigation

SADDLED with some heavy emotional baggage, a string of abused donkeys have become pariahs on the frozen uplands of Derbyshire.

Last week, the beasts began leaving their sanctuary in the village of Wormhill after their water and electricity supplies were severed. A few villagers watched with pity. It is not the animals who arouse deep antipathy; the perceived nuisance is their keeper, a former child actor and theatrical producer who is tied up with debts, legal wrangles and a petition to remove him.

The Wormhill donkeys, all 45 of them, have been rescued from mistreatment and brought since 1990 to a charitable sanctuary in the Derbyshire Peak District. Their saviour is John Stirling, 49.

Mr Stirling's supporters claim he has attracted an unfounded vendetta and telephone death threats. His critics say he is at best incompetent. His present charity has an annual turnover of pounds 30,000; the Charities Commission is investigating the trust.

The roots of his quarrels with villagers and the landed Bagshawe family, of Wormhill Hall, are exotic and complex.

In the 1980s, Mr Stirling produced a theatrical venture that went bankrupt with debts of pounds 305,000. Mr Stirling's former partner says he is owed pounds 250,000. Mr Stirling's advisers say he owes nothing. The money the production owed to actors put Mr Stirling on the Equity blacklist.

He went to the rescue of donkeys in 1989. A charitable trust was formed, with Muffin the Mule as its emblem. A Peak District dairy farmer with some rundown stables was persuaded to take the donkeys rent-free. In return, Mr Stirling said the stables would be renovated, then a formal lease, with rent, negotiated.

Work on renovating the stables was completed spectacularly. Mr Stirling asked Anneka Rice's Challenge Anneka TV programme to do the job, and they delivered in 55 hours. The project was supposed to provide a sanctuary and riding school for handicapped children. But Mr Stirling quarrelled with the farmer, claiming rent should be waived in lieu of the building work. He wanted a longer lease than the farmer could offer so, in November 1990, Mr Stirling moved out.

The donkeys, their charity collecting endorsements from soap stars and Norma Major, found a new home nearby at Wormhill. Mr Stirling formed a new charity, the Michael Elliott Trust, named after a late theatre director.

Tim Bagshawe, a private and decorous man, said they could use a couple of his derelict barns. There would be no rent for three months. Protracted negotiations have failed to agree a lease, and the issue is now before the courts.

Mr Stirling began paying pounds 5,000 a year rent, and offered to pay pounds 15,000 a year for a long term deal. After Malcolm Doney, a financial adviser, became chairman of the trust, the offer came down to pounds 6,000 a year.

Before the lease dispute turned litigious, and the trust stopped paying anything for the barns, Mr Bagshawe defended the donkeys' reputation against a critical parish council. 'People didn't like they way he kept dropping the names of stars. They were told they'd be invited to sherry parties which never took place, and they didn't much like him erecting a road sign saying 'Donkey Village',' a friend of the Bagshawes said.

Since early 1992, relationships have soured. The donkeys allegedly over-grazed land and the trust has completed few of the improvements the Bagshawes claim were promised. Electricity and water were supplied free until last week - notice to quit was served in March. 'The Bagshawes want him out. He and his donkeys have been pests. The Bagshawes have been harassed, exploited and misled,' the friend said.

'They'd hoped Stirling would leave, but will now go down the legal road . . . it has already cost them pounds 15,000, plus about pounds 1,200 in water and electricity.'

Mr Doney is standing by Mr Stirling and is confident the Charities Commission will find no irregularities in trust accounts. 'Most of the people critical of John have been wound up by the Bagshawes. There is no justification for the things that have been said and done. The trust pays its debts.'

The trust is buying a new sanctuary five miles away, but the Peak authorities may not allow public access. John Stirling and his donkeys may find sanctuary only in utter isolation.

(Photographs omitted)